Tomgram: Nick Turse, The Perpetual Killing Field
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: As you read Nick Turse’s stunning report on his recent visit to the killing fields of South Sudan today, remember that if you support this site with a donation of $100 or more ($125 if you live outside the U.S.), you can get a signed, personalized copy of Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan. It's Turse's dramatic, up-close-and-personal account of the tragedy of the American-“midwifed” newest nation on the planet. Check our donation page for the details. Tom]
Slaughter is all too human. Killing fields or mass burial grounds are in the archeological record from the Neolithic period (6,000 to 7,000 years ago) on. Nonetheless, with the advent of modern weaponry and industrial processes, the killing fields of the world have grown to levels that can stagger the imagination. During World War II, when significant parts of the planet, including many of the globe’s great cities, were effectively reduced to ash, an estimated 60 million people, combatants and civilians alike, died (including six million Jews in the killing fields and ovens of Auschwitz, Belzec, Sobibor, and elsewhere).
America’s wars in our own time have been devastating: perhaps three to four million Koreans, half of them civilians (and 37,000 Americans), as well as possibly a millionChinese troops, died between 1950 and 1953 on a peninsula largely left in rubble. In the Indochina wars of the 1960s and 1970s, the toll was similarly mind-bending. In Vietnam, 3.8 million civilians and combatants are estimated to have perished (along with 58,000 Americans); in Laos, perhaps one million people died; and in Cambodia, the U.S.-led part of that war resulted in an estimated 600,000-800,000 dead, while the rebel Khmer Rouge murdered another two to three million of their fellow countrymen in the autogenocide that followed. In all, we’re talking about perhaps, by the roughest of estimates, 12 million dead in Indochina in those years.
And that’s just to begin to explore some of the numbers from World War II to the present. Nick Turse, who spent years retracing the slaughter that was the Vietnam War for his monumental, award-winning book on war crimes there, Kill Anything That Moves, has more recently turned to a set of killing fields that are anything but history. In the last three years, he’s paid three visits to South Sudan, the newest “country” on the planet, the one the U.S. midwifed into existence, producing a dramatic account of the ongoing internecine struggles there in his recent book Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan. It’s a land that has experienced Syrian-level death counts with almost no attention whatsoever from the rest of the world. Recently, he returned to its killing fields and offers a chilling account of a largely forgotten land in which slaughter is the essence of everyday life. Tom
The Worst Place on Earth
Death and Life in the Lost Town of Leer
By Nick TurseLEER, South Sudan -- There it is again. That sickening smell. I’m standing on the threshold of a ghost of a home. Its footprint is all that’s left. In the ruins sits a bulbous little silver teakettle -- metal, softly rounded, charred but otherwise perfect, save for two punctures. Something tore through it and ruined it, just as something tore through this home and ruined it, just as something tore through this town and left it a dusty, wasted ruin.This, truth be told, is no longer a town, not even a razed one. It’s a killing field, a place where human remains lie unburied, whose residents have long since fled, while its few remaining inhabitants are mostly refugees from similarly ravaged villages.
The world is awash in killing fields, sites of slaughter where armed men have laid waste to the innocent, the defenseless, the unlucky; locales where women and children, old and young men have been suffocated, had their skulls shattered, been left gut-shot and gasping. Or sometimes they’re just the unhallowed grounds where the battered and broken bodies of such unfortunates are dumped without ceremony or prayer or even a moment of solemn reflection. Over the last century, these blood-soaked sites have sprouted across the globe: Cambodia, the Philippines, the Koreas, South Africa, Mexico, Lebanon, Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria -- on and on, year after year, country after country.Chances are, you once heard something about the 1994 Rwandan genocide that saw up to one million men, women, and children murdered in just 100 days. You may remember the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops at My Lai. And maybe you recall the images of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical weapons attack on Kurds in Halabja. For years, Sudan contributed to this terrible tally. You might, for instance, remember the attention paid to the slaughter of civilians in Darfur during the 2000s. The killings there actually never ended, only the public outcry did. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were also massacres farther south in or around towns you’ve probably never heard of like Malakal, Bor, and Leer.A 2005 peace deal between U.S.-supported rebels in the south of Sudan and the government in the north was supposed to put a stop to such slaughter, but it never quite did. And in some quarters, worse was predicted for the future. “Looking ahead over the next five years, a number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing,” said U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair in 2010. “Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan.”In late 2013 and 2014, Malakal, Bor, Leer, and other towns in the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, were indeed littered with bodies. And the killing in this country -- the result of the third civil war since the 1950s -- has only continued.In 2014, I traveled to Malakal to learn what I could about the destruction of that town and the civilians who perished there. In 2015, I walked among the mass graves of Bor where, a year earlier, a bulldozer had dug huge trenches for hundreds of bodies, some so badly decomposed or mutilated that it was impossible to identify whether they had been men, women, or children. This spring, I find myself in Leer, another battered enclave, as aid groups struggled to reestablish their presence, as armed men still stalked the night, as human skulls gleamed beneath the blazing midday sun.The nose-curling odor here told me that somewhere, something was burning. The scent had been in my nostrils all day. Sometimes, it was just a faint, if harsh, note carried on the hot breeze, but when the wind shifted it became an acrid, all-encompassing stench -- not the comforting smell of a cooking fire, but something far more malign. I looked to the sky, searching for a plume of smoke, but there was only the same opaque glare, blinding and ashen. Wiping my eyes, I muttered a quick curse for this place and moved on to the next ruined shell of a home, and the next, and the next. The devastated wattle-and-daub tukuls and wrecked animal pens stretched on as far as I could see.This is Leer -- or at least what’s left of it.
The ruins of Leer, South Sudan. The town was repeatedly attacked by militias allied to the national government during 2015.
CLICK TO ENLARGEThe Fire Last TimeIf you want to learn more about this town, about what happened to it, Leer isn’t the best place to start. You’d be better served by traveling down the road several miles to Thonyor, another town in southern Unity State where so much of Leer’s population fled. It was there that I found Mary Nyalony, a 31-year-old mother of five who, only days before, had given birth to a son.Leer was her hometown and life there had never been easy. War arrived shortly after fighting broke out in the capital, Juba, in December 2013, a rupture that most here call “the crisis.” With civil war came men with guns and, in early 2014, Nyalony was forced to run for her life. For three months, she and her family lived in the bush, before eventually returning to Leer. The International Committee of the Red Cross was airdropping food there, she tells me. In her mind, those were the halcyon days. “There was enough to eat,” she explains. “Now, we have nothing.”The road to nothing, like the road to Thonyor, began for her in the early morning hours of a day in May 2015. Single gunshots and staccato bursts of gunfire began echoing across Leer, followed by screams and panic. This has been the story of South Sudan’s civil war: few pitched battles between armies, many attacks on civilians by armed men. Often, it’s unclear just who is attacking. Civilians hear gunfire and they begin to run. If they’re lucky they get away with their lives, and often little else.The war here has regularly been portrayed as a contest between the president, Salva Kiir, a member of the country’s largest tribe, the Dinka, and Riek Machar, a member of the second largest ethnic group, the Nuer. Kiir and Machar do indeed have a long history as both allies and enemies and as president and vice president of their new nation. Kiir went on to sack Machar. Months later, the country plunged into civil war. Kiir claimed the violence stemmed from an abortive coup by Machar, but an investigation by an African Union commission found no evidence of that. It did, however, find that “Dinka soldiers, members of Presidential Guard, and other security forces conducted house-to-house searches, killing Nuer soldiers and civilians in and near their homes” and that it was carried out “in furtherance of a State policy.” The civil war that ensued “ended” with an August 2015 peace agreement that saw Machar rejoin the government. But the violence never actually stopped and after a fresh round of killings in the capital in July, he fled the country and has since issued a new call for rebellion.In truth, though, the war in South Sudan is far more than a battle between two men, two tribes, two armies -- Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Machar’s SPLA-In Opposition (SPLA-IO). It’s a conflict of shifting alliances involving a plethora of armed actors and ad hoc militias led by a corrupt cast of characters fighting wars within wars. The complexities are mind-boggling: longstanding bad blood, grievances, and feuds intertwined with ethnic enmities tangled, in turn, with internecine tribal and clan animosities, all aided and abetted by the power of modern weaponry and the way the ancient cultural practice of cattle-raiding has morphed into paramilitary raiding. Add in a nation in financial free-fall; the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny, riven elite; the mass availability of weaponry; and so many actors pursuing so many aims that it’s impossible to keep them all straight.Whatever the complexities of this war, however, the playbooks of its actors remain remarkably uniform. Men armed with AK-47s fall upon undefended communities. They kill, pillage, loot. Younger women and girls are singled-out for exceptional forms of violence: gang rapes and sexual slavery. Some have been forced into so-called rape camps, where they become the “wives” of soldiers; others are sexually assaulted and killed in especially sadistic ways. Along with women, the soldiers often take cattle -- the traditional rural currency, source of wealth, and means of sustenance in the region.In Leer and the surrounding villages of Unity State, last year’s government offensive to take back rebel territory followed exactly this pattern, but with a ferocity that was striking even for this war. More than one expert told me that, at least for a time in 2015, Leer and its surroundings were one of the worst places in the entire world.
Little remains of the town of Leer, South Sudan, after repeated raids by armed men who burned homes, raped women, and drove the population into exile.
CLICK TO ENLARGEArmed youth from Nuer clans allied to the government offered no mercy. Fighting alongside troops from the SPLA and forces loyal to local officials, they carried out a scorched-earth campaign against other ethnic Nuers from spring 2015 though the late fall. Their pay was whatever they could steal and whomever they could rape.“People in southern Unity State have suffered through some of the most harrowing violence that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has seen in South Sudan -- or in almost any other context where we work,” says Pete Buth, Deputy Director of Operations for the aid group. “Over the course of the last two years, and particularly from May to November of 2015, women, men and children have been indiscriminately targeted with extreme and brutal violence. We’ve received reports and testimonies of rape, killings, abductions of women and children and the wholesale destruction of villages. The levels of violence have been absolutely staggering.”By late last year, almost 600,000 people like Nyalony had been displaced in Unity State alone.“They came to raid the cattle. They seemed to be allied to the government,” she tells me. Given all she’s been through, given the newborn she’s gently palpitating, her eyes are surprisingly bright, her voice strong. Her recollections, however, are exceptionally grim. Two younger male relatives of hers were shot but survived. Her father-in-law wasn’t so fortunate. He was killed in the attack, she tells me, his body consumed in the same flames that destroyed his home.The Fire This Time